Monday, February 1, 2016

Concept or Image: Which comes first?

Over on WetCanvas, One of the more prolific contributors asked; "Which comes first for you: the image or the concept?  Do you begin with an idea or concept that you wish to express or communicate and develop your imagery to that end? Or do you begin with an image... perhaps not even knowing what the painting is about until it develops?".

Usually, I first have a concept in mind and develop the image from that concept.  This process works for me and I had usefulness reinforced in a it humorously but somewhat sad incident at an ‘Oil and Acrylic’ course at the local community centre I recently attended.  It has it been many years since I used Acrylics felt that these painting sessions might help me with this medium.  From past experience with the instructor and her classes, I didn’t expect much formal instruction but it was an opportunity to get out of the studio and talk to other painters and view their work.

I wasn’t disappointed with the instruction.  It follows the format of previous courses I attended with this instructor, in which she is circulating from student to student, mixing colours and painting passages for each ‘student’.  The subject of the painting being left to the student: usually a copy of a colour photograph from a magazine.  Most of her students accept and are happy with process and will stop and wait for her attention to a particular passage before proceeding to paint on their own  This is not instruction in my book, but at least she has the nounce to not try to paint my paintings for me.

At the time, I was working on my fifth painting in my Bardo series.  So far I have had four utter failures, of these “never show to anyone” class of painting but this had given me ample opportunity to become familiar with my subject material.  I was determined to succeed this time and was working my way through notan thumbnail compositions and a the occasional larger rough sketch of my latest concept.  Carol stopped to see what I was working on, but as I had not yet put brush to paper, she only had a salty comment that implied I did too much planning and would not finish my painting before the class was over in three months.

Her negativity didn’t distract me and I continued with my sketches. The image and the composition develops from rough sketches and notan.  In these I am looking to locate the major shapes, their placement on the picture plane, an interesting division of space and the format I will use.  I never spend more than a minute or so on any individual thumbnail notan. I try to see what works, including that in the next notan, and what doesn’t and leave that out.  Eventually I got to an acceptable composition and then did a larger and more detailed sketch.

Throughout this process, I am aware of how my sketches and notan relate to and refine my original concept.  If I have strayed too far from my original concept but have developed an interesting composition, I will usually stick with this new redefined concept-composition and paint a finished image from it.  Most likely the original idea was weak or flawed in some manner.

In this particular instance, I had, in my opinion, a workable composition that was in sync with my original concept.  I scaled it up to 15x22 inches and started with the first wash while in the class room.  I finished the background in watercolour in my studio and had only to paint the main building and some foreground trees with acrylics in the next class.  While I was painting these passages in the classroom, one of my fellow students came over and made some encouraging remarks on the colour and composition and asked, “Where’s the picture?”.

I showed her my preliminary notans and intermediate B/W sketches. “I could never paint without a picture”.  This lady was one of the more talented students with in my opinion good painting skills.  Sadly, from my perspective, this lady will limit herself to painting copies of photographs and never consider asking herself “Why am I attracted to this photograph so much I want to paint a copy of it?”.  Until she asks herself this question or is exposed to others who are doing their own composition inspired by their own concept, she will be limited to painting copies that someone else has composed.

Your concept is much more important than the image.